The Bit

oil on canvas, 150×200 cm / 59×79 in

“Science without Conscience is only the soul’s perdition”. Francois Rabelais

Norbert Wiener, a genius in mathematics, who made essential contributions to the development of the nuclear bomb, in order to defeat the Nazis, had his conscience brutally awakened after the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Albert Einstein had a similar reaction when he realized that the genie he had helped to create could not be put back into the lamp.

Norbert Wiener described his conflict in the following words: “The scientist should not enjoy a personal freedom of thought at the price of his moral responsibility, which is the only thing giving a sense to this freedom. There exists no secure formula without risks to find a just balance, indispensable, between freedom and responsibility”. Unfortunately, not all scientists share this conscience-guided principle of research. One example was Wiener’s colleague John von Neumann, who wanted to use the new weapon against the Soviet Union.

Russian scientists have found out that conscience can be observed on a computer screen. Everybody has a conscience. But “a lot of people try to get rid of it (according to Svjataslav Medvedev, Director of the Brain Research Center of the Russian Academy of Science), because it is triggered by remorse, the information that we have done something wrong”.

However, how will conscience survive in a future where artificial intelligence progresses at the speed of light? The replication of the Neocortex of the human brain, with its 300 million pattern recognizers, by institutions such as the Artificial Brain Lab at Xiamen University in China, or Vicarious, the newest venture of Mark Zuckerberg, raises again fundamental questions of conscience, similar to those of Norbert Wiener’s time. “Translate the Neocortex into computer code (bits) and you have a computer who thinks like a person” says Scott Phoenix, co-founder of Vicarious. “Except it does not have to sleep or eat”.

He could have added: “It needs no conscience anymore, no feelings, no remorse”. Are we sure that we want to live in such a cold, digitalized world; that we want to be sucked into the vortex of the all-embracing artificial brain, shown in my painting? Where will this leave our soul, the link to our Creator? Have I created my Cloak, the symbol of universal conscience, in vain?